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Spring 2007

Curriculum for the 21st century

Lost in the crowd

What are the challenges facing curriculum designers and, specifically, what role will history play in 21st century curriculum? Nick Ewbank asserts that history has a key role in shaping the future.

Now into the future

One of the conundra facing modern societies and, therefore, schools is the way in which an increasingly globalised world is becoming increasingly individual. While many of us have previously unparalleled access to a multi-national range of information, and national economies are becoming ever more intertwined, this access is carried out in a solitary, rather than a societal, setting. In this information-saturated world, it makes sense that old, content-driven concepts of curriculum need to be overhauled. There is simply so much ‘stuff’ out there, that it is unreasonable to expect any one person—student, parent, or teacher—to master all of it.

From civic knowledge to driver education, every year there seems to be an increasing number of things that schools have to deliver. To exacerbate this phenomenon, it also seems that ‘society’ is expecting schools to pick up certain forms of education that were previously the sole remit of the home.

The increasing recognition that deep knowledge and deep understanding should be the focus for Australian schools also places challenges on teachers and administrators. Many, if not most, Australian schools are organised around a Key Learning Area (KLA) (or other ‘subject’ tag) model. Reconceptualised models of curriculum do not always easily fit these models.

Teachers need to be given permission to ‘throw away’ redundant learning (whatever that is), and be given space to work out what their students really need to know in the world of the 21st century. One of the ways to do this is to identify ‘essential’ (or core) learnings, and, by definition, valuable but non-essential learnings. This parallels the duality of our times, between the globalised and the individual contexts in which our students exist.

Curriculum must come to reflect the fact that all students do not need to know how to do, think, feel and value everything. There are some things that all students must know, think, feel or value. There are many, many more things that students, in particular circumstances, may need to have covered in their schooling. The trick is to identify as essential all those that are essential.

The way forward?

But here’s the rub—what is essential? Many teachers (particularly in the secondary sector), have a huge investment in their particular area of learning, and find it difficult to look beyond this frame of reference. Personally, academically and educationally, we can be captives of our own experiences. Similarly, many others who desire a role in curriculum design have particular barrows to push. So how do we move towards an essential curriculum? Some form of cooperative curriculum development agency, with representatives of all stakeholders, might be the answer.

What should a curriculum of the essentials look like? Most obviously, it should comprise the set of skills that will enable students to make meaning of the world in which we live, and allow them to continue the process of education throughout their lives. Critical literacy and numeracy are obviously key factors here. Metacognition—in the sense of knowing about their own learning and how they best learn—is also important. Working and living with others must similarly be core, and ditto skills in planning actions and acting with principle. In short, skills should be focused on, but not with a total sacrifice of content. We should also recognise that those skills will not be achieved without a context in which they can be developed.

The Australian Government’s intervention in the curriculum debate—to agitate for a nationalised curriculum—is an interesting one. The calls for a nationally consistent curriculum have an almost axiomatic appeal to them. However, the way in which the government appears to be approaching curriculum is unhelpful.

Creating a ‘crisis a month’ (e.g. the critical literacy ‘debate’), or by a reductionist approach by defaulting to what is common between jurisdictions (e.g. the ACER study on year 12 curriculum) may serve a set of political needs (on the one hand, being seen to be doing ‘something’ about education, and on the other, dealing with the States versus Australian Government conundrum), but both of these approaches are flawed.

The ‘crisis management’ approach devalues teachers and their expertise; it also leads to the ‘flavour of the month’ being publicly valued. A 21st century curriculum will not work if all the ‘old’ content (about which various interest groups are prepared to agitate), gets shoehorned into the core curriculum. We will merely be back with a crowded curriculum, and no progress will have been made.

Good curriculum should set high standards—aspirational goals. Our students should not be expected to give of anything other than their best; similarly, our curriculum design should not be anything less than the best we can make it. Merely identifying what is currently common between the eight States and Territories is no guarantee of the highest standard. What is needed is some sort of curriculum body, with the time and resources, removed from the whims of the political process, to make considered, not instant ‘shoot from the lip’ judgements.

Quo Vadis history?

In the age of globalisation, what does the study of history, so often thought of in purely national terms, have to offer? Will it become part of the ‘valuable but not essential’ curriculum?

The description of 21st century curriculum above, may seem to be, at first glance, an argument for ditching discipline-based studies; rather, it is an argument for the place of a set of essential skills and knowledges. These would be knowledges and skills in learning how to learn effectively, and how to be a good communicator, and a contributing member of society.

The research around Queenland’s New Basics shows quite clearly that deep learnings are only developed in context, because of the need for connectedness. Curriculum should not be conceived of in seven or eight distinct KLA ‘boxes’.

History well taught (and that is a significant caveat) will continue to have a place in the essential curriculum of the 21st century simply because it can do all these things. History develops students’ skills in critical literacy, and it generates reflection on the (often poor) decisions taken by people in the past. It also promotes understanding of the perspectives of others. The contested nature of history—e.g. were the events of Easter 1916 in Ireland a revolt or a rebellion?—opens students up to the problematic nature of knowledge. It forces them to grapple with perspectives and evaluate others’ ‘on balance’ judgements.

The study of history is not soley nationalistic. An understanding of Australian history is nowhere near complete without an understanding of what was happening in the wider world. The world of the past, when skilfully opened up by good teaching, offers an Aladdin’s cave of examples to reflect upon our strengths and weaknesses as humans, and to develop a set of specific and valuable educational skills. Faced with Nazi aggression, would you have taken a stand against Hitler at Munich? What are the impacts of the Wik decision today? How could the Holocaust have happened in 20th century, ‘civilised’ Germany? What does the assassination of Caesar tell us about our political liberties today?

Apart from all the essential skills and attributes identified above, surely the most important things for each student to take away from an education include a sense of self, and a sense of our society—where it has been, and where it may be going. History is, again, well able to develop these attributes in students.

Confucius said, many years ago, that ‘if you would divine the future, study the past’. That aphorism could be restated as ‘if you would shape the future, study the past’.


The Australian Curriculum Studies Association’s ‘A Guide to Productive National Curriculum Work for the Twenty First Century’:

National Centre for History Education:

author picture Nick Ewbank is a history teacher in the ACT, and is currently president of the History Teachers’ Association of Australia.